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Events of Interest: Week of December 12-16, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2011 (Updated: 11-Dec-2011 05:07 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week – though we know of very few as everyone begins wrapping up their activities for 2011.  The House and Senate are both in session this week and have full agendas, including many hearings though not on space policy-related topics.   

During the Week 

If all goes according to plan, this will be the final week of the first session of the 112th Congress.   Before the House and Senate can go home, however, they have critically important legislation to pass.   Among the most important items from a space-policy standpoint are the following: 

  • Final passage of the FY2012 Defense Authorization bill (S. 1867).   House and Senate negotiators have been working on the final version since the Senate passed the bill on December 1.  Rumors are that the conference version will be completed as early as tomorrow, Monday, December 12, but a wrinkle developed over the weekend.   The Washington Post reports that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) released a report that the bill contains $834 million in earmarks, including many by Republican freshman who campaigned against earmarks.   Legislators pledged not to include earmarks in legislation for this year and next year.  Whether McCaskill’s report will delay final negotiations remains to be seen.
  • Final passage the remaining FY2012 appropriations bills.  Three of the bills were bundled together and passed as a “minibus” earlier this month, but agencies and departments in the remaining nine bills – including the Department of Defense (DOD) – have not yet passed.  Currently they are bundled together into H.R. 2055, but two (Labor-HHS and Interior) are especially controversial and may be pulled out and dealt with separately.    The current Continuing Resolution (CR) that is funding these agencies expires on Friday, so some action must be taken before then. 

Thursday, December 15 

Burns: GPS -- Key Economic Benefit of Space Program -- is at Risk

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 10-Dec-2011 (Updated: 10-Dec-2011 03:29 PM)

At the A Day Without Space: Economic Security Ramifications seminar yesterday, Captain Joe Burns of United Airlines sent one message loud and clear: the future of aviation depends on GPS and that future is being threatened. 

Burns, who serves as United’s Managing Director of Technology and Flight Test, enumerated several reasons why GPS is important to aviation, including safer and better precision operations and a reduction in fuel burn and greenhouse gas emissions for an industry that is “exceptionally environmentally sensitive.”

According to Burns, the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, a term used to describe transformations in the air transportation system that would increase efficiency and allow it to meet growing global demand, is “one hundred percent dependent on GPS.” From seemingly simple solutions like helping pilots find available gates, to live-saving safety improvements such as improving terrain awareness and enabling airlines to “de-conflict” in busy hubs like Chicago and New York, GPS is absolutely critical, he said.

These NextGen programs, some of which are already being implemented under the so-called NowGen effort, translate into considerable economic savings, sometimes exceeding 1,500 pounds of fuel per flight. This translates to millions of pounds of fuel a year, which Burns said would help reduce airlines’ fuel expenses and fuel accounts for about a third of United’s expenses

With this much promise, Burns is seriously concerned about the risks facing GPS. Specifically, he talked about the proliferation of inexpensive GPS jammers and LightSquared’s proposed mobile broadband system. While both are “a real threat to GPS,” Burns said that Lightsquared in particular was “a bit scary for our future operations,” since its signals “would bleed into the GPS system.” He asserted that none of the proposed filters shows any promise from an aviation industry standpoint and he hopes that LightSquared is denied permission to implement its hybrid satellite-terrestrial system.  “Without GPS, clearly, NextGen is dead in the water,” he said.

Also speaking at the seminar was Bill Wilt, Vice President for North American Sales at GeoEye.  He described his company’s activities in collecting, analyzing and delivering commercial satellite imagery products to customers and governments around the world. Wilt explained how these products not only support activities such as research and national defense, but are also part of some of the aviation programs that Burns mentioned.

Rebecca Spyke Keiser, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator for Policy Integration, presented an overview of the broad economic impact of the agency’s activities. The NASA budget equals about “half a penny of every federal dollar spent,” said Keiser, who lamented the persisting impression in some sectors that the NASA budget is a lot larger.

Keiser offered examples of NASA’s involvement in situations with clear economic impacts such as helping with remediation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the volcanic ash from Iceland that disrupted air transportation in 2010. She also mentioned NASA’s 1,750 “spin offs,” technologies that have been successfully transferred to the private sector, as well as studies that track how many jobs and dollars are spent in a given locality as part of a specific program like the James Webb Space Telescope. Although it would be “hard to imagine what our economy would be like if NASA were not around,” precisely quantifying economic benefits as a result of NASA activities remains quite a challenge, she said.

The A Day Without Space series is hosted by the TechAmerica Space Enterprise Council and the George C. Marshall Institute.



SpaceX Demo Flight to ISS Set for February 7

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Dec-2011 (Updated: 13-Dec-2011 05:21 PM)

NASA announced today that SpaceX will launch its pathbreaking demonstration commercial cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 7, 2012.  Pending final safety reviews and tests, it also is allowing the company to combine its second and third test flights as it requested.

SpaceX is one of two companies working with NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to develop systems to take cargo to the ISS now that the space shuttle program has ended.    SpaceX conducted the first test of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft in December 2010.   Two more test flights were planned to demonstrate the ability to rendezvous and berth to the ISS, but SpaceX asked to combine them into a single mission after the success of the earlier flight.

NASA's announcement today stopped short of final approval for combining the two tests, which will require "final safety reviews, testing and verification."    NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said "There is still a significant amount of critical work to be completed before launch, but the teams have a sound plan..."

The agency is anxious for SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., NASA's other COTS partner, to initiate their commercial cargo services.  Orbital has not yet launched its Taurus II launch vehicle or Cygnus spacecraft.  Both companies plan to begin offering commercial services in 2012, however.     The space shuttle was the primary means of taking cargo to (and from) the ISS.    Although there are other non-U.S. spacecraft that can deliver cargo to the ISS -- Russia's Progress, Europe's ATV and Japan's HTV -- the United States itself has no means at all today to send either cargo or crews there.   NASA also is working with SpaceX and other companies to develop a "commercial crew" capability that it hopes will result in a U.S. commercial human spaceflight transportation system in the middle of this decade.

Taking people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO, where the ISS is located) was relegated to the commercial sector instead of NASA by President Obama in February 2011.  The decision was very controversial and Congress has not provided as much funding for NASA to assist the commercial companies as the President requested, making the timing of when such services will be available open to question.   Congress instead directed NASA to proceed with developing a new spacecraft and launch system to take astronauts beyond LEO and to serve as a backup in case the commercial plans fall through.  NASA's system is not expected to be ready to launch people anywhere until 2021, however.

NASA Loses Moon Rocks, Needs to Improve Collection Management

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Dec-2011 (Updated: 08-Dec-2011 03:25 PM)

NASA has lost hundreds of samples of astromaterials including Moon rocks and meteorite samples and needs to improve its management of such materials that are loaned to researchers and institutions according to NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG).

In a report released today, the OIG found that over 500 astromaterials loaned out between 1970 and June 2010 were lost or stolen, "including 18 lunar samples reported lost by a researcher in 2010 and 218 lunar and meteorite samples stolen from a researcher at Johnson Space Center, but since recovered."

Considering that NASA is planning more missions to collect samples from solar system bodies, the OIG called for more reliable controls and accountability at Johnson Space Center's Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office.  That office manages 140,000 lunar samples, 18,000 meteorite samples, and approximately 5,000 solar wind, comet and cosmic dust samples according to the report.  NASA had about 26,000 of those samples on loan as of March 2011, but the OIG concluded that NASA's "records were inaccurate, researchers could not account for all samples loaned to them, and researchers held samples for extended periods without performing research or returning the samples to NASA."

The OIG recommended a number of procedures to be implemented to improve control of the materials.   In a December 7 memo published as an appendix to the report, Charles Gay, Acting Associate Administrator for Science Mission Directorate, concurred with all the recommendations. 


Russia Still Hoping for Phobos-Grunt Contact

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Dec-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 04:01 PM)

Russia has not given up on contacting its Phobos-Grunt spacecraft that has been stranded in Earth orbit since launch on November 8.

The European Space Agency (ESA) resumed efforts to contact the spacecraft on Monday at Russia's request using a ground station in Spain.  The request from Russia casts doubt on recent reports in the press that the spacecraft may be tumbling or even falling to pieces.  Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, and the company that built Phobos-Grunt and the Fregat upper stage that apparently malfunctioned, Lavochkin, have not provided any public updates, however, making ground-based visual observations by skilled amatuers the main source of information about the spacecraft's condition.

Unfortunately, ESA's latest efforts have not borne fruit.   The agency reported today that its attempts to communicate with the spacecraft using a "redundant transmitter" on Phobos-Grunt on Monday, Tuesday and today "did not succeed."   It will continue to try through Friday.  ESA was able get a response from the spacecraft twice, but it fell silent thereafter.

Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) was designed to return a sample of soil from Mars's moon Phobos to Earth.  It also carries a small Chinese spacecraft that was to orbit Mars.   This is the first Mars spacecraft launched by Russia in 15 years.   That spacecraft, Mars-96, also failed to leave Earth orbit, another in a long string of Mars failures for the Russian space program.  Of the more than a dozen spacecraft sent to Mars since the 1960s by Russia, only one (Phobos 2) has been even a partial success.  The United States also has had Mars failures, but the majority have been great successes, including the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.  NASA launched its most recent Mars probe, Curiosity, just after Thanksgiving.   It is scheduled to arrive at Mars in August 2012.  It also is a rover.

Hall: This is “Last Opportunity” for JWST

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Dec-2011 (Updated: 07-Dec-2011 03:45 PM)

House Science, Space and Technology Committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) lauded the scientific advances expected to result from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), but warned that repeated overruns and schedule delays are trying Congress’s patience.  

Reminding JWST Program Director Rick Howard and the other witnesses at yesterday’s hearing about the severe budget situation, Hall said that “NASA’s latest replan for the [JWST] is the agency’s last opportunity to hold this program together.”


A memo prepared by committee staff in preparation for the hearing succinctly reviews the history of the troubled program, originally slated to cost $500 million with launch in 2007.   The latest cost estimate is $8.8 billion with launch in 2018.


Hall and several other Republican members of the committee honed in on those cost increases and expressed concern about whether the latest estimate is any more reliable that those submitted previously.   Howard began his testimony by admitting that the agency managed the program poorly.  After thanking Congress for providing an increase in JWST funding for FY2012, he said:  “We at NASA recognize that we made your already difficult task of funding important programs in these distressed fiscal times even more difficult through our poor past performance on JWST.”


Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who chaired the committee in the late 1990s during a troubled time for the International Space Station (ISS), worried that JWST will be “another money pit” like the ISS.  Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) pressed the witnesses to rank JWST as a priority within NASA and say what programs should receive less funds if JWST needs more.


Howard, who took over the JWST program management responsibilities last year following a management shakeup, told the committee that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has said that the agency’s top three priorities are JWST, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).   He stopped short of saying what programs should be cut.   The other three witnesses also declined to specify what should be cut.  As Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) later pointed out, since none the latter three works for the government, they were not in a position to answer and he called for a subsequent hearing with appropriate witnesses if that line of questioning is to be pursued.  The other witnesses were Roger Blandford of Stanford University who chaired the most recent National Research Council Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics; Garth Illingworth, an astrophysicist at the University of California Santa Cruz who served as a member of the Independent Review Team that led to the management shakeup last year; and Jeffrey Grant of Northrop Grumman, prime contractor for JWST.


The overall message from the committee to NASA was that despite congressional support for the scientific goals of JWST, this must be the last time the agency comes to Congress with news of overruns or schedule slips.  NASA’s response was that it will restore Congress’s confidence by ensuring that JWST comes in on the cost and schedule promised in the latest replanning effort -- $8.8 billion life cycle cost (of which $8 billion is development) and launch in 2018.


Howard’s statement that Bolden identified NASA’s top three priorities are JWST, SLS and MPCV is different from what Bolden told the Senate Commerce Committee on November 17.  Bolden listed the agency’s top three priorities as SLS/MPCV (combined as one), the International Space Station with enhancements including commercial crew, and JWST. 


  • Hearing Charter
  • Opening statement by Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX)
  • Opening statement by Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)
  • Written statement of Rick Howard, JWST Program Director, NASA
  • Written statement of Roger Blandford, Stanford University
  • Written statement of Garth Illingworth, Univ of California Santa Cruz
  • Written statement of Jeffrey Grant, Northrop Grumman
  • Webcast

NASA Confirms Planet Around Distant Star, Merging Tsunamis Here on Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Dec-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:43 PM)

NASA's contributions to understanding our own planet as well as planets around distant stars were on display at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco today.

Among them was a finding that the horrific damage caused in Japan this year was the result of merging tsunamisobserved by chance when three earth observation satellites with radar altimeters happened to be in the right place at the right time to measure wave heights.  "It was a one in 10 million chance that we were able to observe this double wave with satellites" according to Y. Tony Song of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a federally funded research and development center operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology.

The three satellites were the NASA/CNES Jason-1, NASA/ESA Jason-2, and ESA's EnviSAT.  CNES is the French space agency; ESA is the European Space Agency.   All three have radar altimeters that measure sea level changes and each crossed the tsunami at different locations, enabling the findings.

The satellite data showed that at least two wave fronts merged into a single, double-wave.  "This wave was capable of travelling long distances without losing power" and "doubled in intensity over rugged ocean ridges, amplifying its destructive power at landfall," according to NASA.

Completely separately, scientists now have confirmed the existence of a planet that is similar in size to Earth orbiting a distant star similar to our Sun and within a zone where they believe life could arise.   NASA's Kepler space-based telescope is studying a comparatively small region of the sky hunting for planets around other stars.  It cannot directly observe such planets, but stares at the stars to notice changes in their brightness that could indicate an orbiting body passing in front -- a planet.

Scientists describe a region around stars where it might be possible for life to arise called a "habitable zone."   Kepler 22-b, as this planet is designated, is in the habitable zone of a star similar to ours that is 600 light years away.   It is one of 48 planet candidates in habitable zones of stars that Kepler is studying, down from the 54 reported earlier this year because scientists are now using a stricter definition of a habitable zone - sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks zone, where the temperature is not too hot and not too cold, but just right for life.    Planet "candidates" must be verified through observations using other ground- or space-based telescopes before they are confirmed as actually being planets.  Kepler 22-b is the first to be confirmed.

Bolden: NASA Not Budgeting for Sequestration

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Dec-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:41 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a Space Transportation Association (STA) audience today that NASA is not planning for a budget that would reflect deep cuts required by sequestration under the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011.

Responding to a questioner by saying that he is "optimistic," Bolden said that he does not think Congress will allow the sequestration to go into effect.  "I, like the President, am very confident that the going to find a way to solve the problem," he asserted.

The BCA created the congressional "supercommittee" that was tasked with reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years.  If it failed, automatic reductions called a "sequester" of a similar magnitude would go into effect for all the government departments and agencies that are funded as part of the "discretionary" part of the government.   There also would be a modest cut to Medicare providers.

The supercommittee did fail, conceding just before Thanksgiving that its 12 members could not reach a compromise on how to reduce the deficit.   Republicans wants reductions solely through spending cuts; Democrats wanted a combination of spending cuts and revenue (tax) increases.

Exactly how much any particular agency would be cut in any given year is uncertain at this point since the calculations depend on a number of factors.  However, cuts on the order of 7-8 percent for non-defense discretionary agencies like NASA have been floated.   These would be cuts to projected funding levels through FY2021.

Bolden did, indeed, sound very optimistic about his agency's achievements in 2011 and the outlook for the future.   Even though Congress reduced NASA's $18.7 billion FY2012 budget request to $17.8 billion, he called it "pretty doggone close" considering today's stringent budget environment.

Bolden cited launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) - Curiosity - as one of NASA's major achievements in 2011.   He said that it was a precursor to sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  Curioisty is a rover than will land on Mars and roam across its surface to study whether Mars once could have been habitable.  The comment thus infers that NASA's plan is to land people on Mars in the 2030s, although President Obama's National Space Policy calls for putting people into orbit around Mars - not landing on the surface - in the 2030s.  Landing is much more difficult than orbiting and would require the development of systems that would increase the cost of the human spaceflight program.   In response to a question, Bolden clarified that it is his hope that both orbital and landing missions could be accomplished within the decade of the 2030s, but he stressed that specific plans have yet to be developed and they depend on technological advancements.

UPDATED: Events of Interest: Week of December 5-9, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Dec-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.   For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.  The House and Senate both are in session this week. 

Monday-Friday, December 5-9 

Tuesday, December 6

  • Women in Aerospace, Space Telescopes: Today, Tomorrow and Beyond, 2325 Rayburn House Office Building, 12:00-2:00 pm EST
  • United Launch Alliance (ULA) Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary, National Press Club, Hoelman Lounge, Washington, DC, 12:30-1:30 pm
  • HSS&T hearing on James Webb Space Telescope, 2318 Rayburn House Office Building. 2:00 pm (note the time change)

Thursday, December 8

 Friday, December 9 

  • NASA Future Forum 2, Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington, 9:00 am – 12:30 pm PST (noon-3:30 pm EST)

Europe Suspends Efforts to Contact Phobos-Grunt

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Dec-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:13 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has suspended its attempts to contact Russia's Phobos-Grunt spacecraft, but remains ready to resume assistance if the situation changes.

ESA has been using ground stations in Australia and the Canary Islands to help Russia contact the probe, stranded in Earth orbit since its launch on November 8.   The Fregat upper stage that should have sent the probe on its way to Mars did not fire for unknown reasons.  The probe deployed its solar panels, and ESA successfully contacted the probe last week, but nothing more has been heard from it since.

Phobos-Grunt (Phobos-soil) was intended to return a sample of the Mars moon Phobos to Earth as well as deploy a small Chinese spacecraft to orbit Mars.   The window for a two-way mission to Mars has closed, although theoretically if contact was reestablished and the problem resolved, it could still make a one-way trip to Mars.  The Earth and Mars are properly aligned in their orbits around the Sun every 26 months for spacecraft to travel between them.

If contact cannot be restored, the spacecraft will reenter Earth's atmosphere sometime early next year.

Events of Interest


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